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Cyberpl@y: Communicating Online

Author: Brenda Danet
Publisher: Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001
Review Published: March 2002

 REVIEW 1: Julie Mactaggart
 REVIEW 2: Beth Jeffery
 REVIEW 3: Karla Saari Kitalong

It is very gratifying for me that Julie Mactaggart, Beth Jeffery, and Karla Saari Kitalong all wrote very appreciatively about my book. They understood the perils of developing such an inter-disciplinary approach, and of writing about online playfulness in a manner that is itself sometimes playful, yet asks to be taken seriously. Evidently, reading about playfulness and the ways in which the digital medium invites attention to message form is dangerous too: Mactaggart began her review with the stylistically unconventional "Delighted LOL!" and marked divisions between sections with some decorative play with typography, including the ubiquitous @ symbol and an extended ASCII typographic character that required some detective work for her to find, and for me to identify. She ends her discussion of my chapter on "typed jazz" with the line, "Riff. Trill. Cantata. Communication" -- hardly the customary style of academic book reviews. Kitalong surprisingly confesses that "she wishes she had kept better notes." Guardians of the norms and genres of print culture would be horrified! But not to worry -- they probably don't read David Silver's online book reviews.

On a more serious note, both Mactaggart and Jeffery refer to my suggestion in Chapter 1 that digital communication is paradoxically both doubly attenuated and doubly enhanced. In this connection Jeffery attributes to me the idea that digital texts are "bi-stable." For the record, on pp. 6-7 I clearly acknowledge this term as that of Richard Lanham, in his 1993 book The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts.

Jeffery suggests that attention to the offerings of linguistics, particularly functional linguistics, could enhance theorizing about the phenomena I studied. She writes that I am "instinctively a functional or descriptive linguist without knowing it." I find this comment puzzling, as well as her perception that I am somehow allied with formalist linguistics and preoccupied with competence rather than performance. I explicitly located the book within the rubric of the ethnography of communication, which is committed to the study of empirical uses of language in social context (pp. 10-11), even if not exclusively devoted to the Halliday school. In my opinion, I could not have arrived at the formulation of playfulness online presented in Cyberpl@y, nor carried out the empirical analysis that I did, without a good deal of past research experience in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis [1]. I do believe that certain developments in recent Halliday-inspired theorizing about visual communication point us in potentially useful directions. In work on IRC art since the publication of Cyberpl@y I am attempting to integrate the approach of visual social semiotics [2] with literature on the anthropology of ritual.

In Kitalong's overview of my chapter on the language of public email, she comments that I could have mentioned playful email handles like "surfergrrl." But on p. 65 I explicitly called attention to the nickname "Technosmurf," as it appeared both in this letter-writer's email address and as expressly included by him at the end of the letter. There is further attention to playful presentation of self in email in my discussion of signature files (pp. 78-79).

My reviewers apparently disagree about the usefulness of contextualizing my topics with capsule histories of related phenomena predating their online counterparts. Mactaggart and Kitalong find them useful as I do, but Jeffery wishes I had omitted the history of Valentine cards [3]. It seems to me that the history of greeting cards, including Valentines, one of the best documented types, is essential in order to emphasize what is at stake when we abandon the materiality of paper greeting cards and postcards. Moreover, although placed in the chapter on digital greetings, this capsule history is also important background for my discussion of IRC art, on two IRC channels where it is Valentine's Day 365 days a year [4].

I regret that the reviewers did not address, except perhaps indirectly, the importance of illustrations in Cyberpl@y, particularly the color plates.5 Unlike art history books, social science books have not been profusely illustrated in the past, and institutional funds are not generally earmarked for this purpose. At best, social science books typically include a few black and white photographs. To date, only a very few books about the Internet have included color illustrations, e.g., Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's Remediation: Understanding New Media (1999). It required a considerable struggle to ensure that Cyberpl@y would be heavily illustrated, and would include a large number of color plates. The book could not have made many of its points effectively without them. As digital culture becomes more and more visual, illustrations accompanying academic writing about it will become more and more essential. I hope that my experience will help pave the way for other authors in this respect.

Kitalong is the only one of the three reviewers to mention its companion Website, for which I thank her. While a growing number of publishers and authors are creating such Websites, many are quite limited in what they offer to visitors, and are little more than marketing devices. My site is more ambitious, and was created over the course of a year with the permission of my publisher, largely at my personal expense, and with the invaluable help of Tsameret Wachenhauser, my former research assistant in Jerusalem. The site is itself a kind of self-reflexive, playful performance, about which I hope someday to write an essay that will be uploaded to the site. What is the value in the parallel production of print books and their companion Websites? Are such Websites worth the expense and the effort of creating and maintaining them? Should future book reviews cover both the printed book and its Website? These issues are themselves topics for future discussion and research. Meantime, readers are invited to pay us a visit.

1. The bibliography for Cyberpl@y includes references to four of my past publications about legal discourse, including a handbook chapter. Other past topics include the language of requests in Israeli Hebrew (together with Shoshana Blum-Kulka, a linguist colleague in Jerusalem), the transitional language of Old English wills, and the evolution of performativity and constitutive ritual from pre-historic times to the Internet (a paper based on a plenary address at an international conference on "Language and the Professions" organized by several Swedish linguists).

2. Kress and van Leeuwen (1996); van Leeuwen and Jewitt (2001), especially the chapters by van Leeuwen and Jewitt themselves and by Jewitt and Oyama.

3. Jeffery has two quibbles, that I don't know who Mrs. Beeton is (p. 166), and that I placed Inchcolm in England instead of Scotland (p. 155, n. 40). Not all of us grew up in the British Commonwealth -- Emily Post being more familiar to us than Mrs. Beeton. Second, in reference to the playful email address traitor@saint.colmes.inch.uk, it is not I who located Inchcolm geographically but Gayle Kidder, the author of the script of "PCbeth -- an IBM Clone of Macbeth," who invented this fictitious email address. In all RL email addresses the various parts of the UK, including Scotland, are rendered as "uk," so a fictitious one had to maintain the practice. One correction is in order: the real Thane of Cawdor had betrayed the Scottish army, not the English, to the Norwegians.

4. The older of the two channels, #mirc_colors, closed its virtual doors in December 2000; the other channel, #mirc_rainbow, continues to flourish.

5. Jeffery calls it "both a resource and a coffee-table book." Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen. 1996. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York & London: Routledge.

Lanham, Richard A. 1993. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

van Leeuwen, Theo and Carey Jewitt, Eds. 2001. Handbook of Visual Analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA and London: Sage.

Brenda Danet

Brenda Danet


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